The Castle of Conceits
This story is printed here by kind permission of Owen Marshall and Vintage Publishing House.
Reproduction of this material is forbidden.
THERE ARE JULY days when the sky is inflated by mist to grey immensity, and pearls hang from wires and weatherboards and from the thinnest branches. No wind, and the grey of the sky is milked in the raindrops and in the shallow puddles. Blackbirds forage along the hedges, and foliage is subdued from the frosts of other days. Disconsolate smoke above the suburbs. Posters are cold and calm and stained: they advertise yet another production of Macbeth, and proclaim an evangelical mission long departed. The contagion of the former has overcome the latter, has seeped out and by osmosis reached within the people so that virtue and resolution are under-mined. Fruit stares out of place, unwholesome, and in the butchers' shops the meat contracts and beads up blood. Green mould flourishes and marks the seepage on stone walls and, like cigarette paper, the birch skin is worn from the boughs. Alley cats shake hands with the invisible, fastidious in the passage from one warehouse to the next. Even the directors' cars, places reserved, are stained and bleed on to the stones embedded in the tar.
Both customers and attendants are present in the shops from duty: each blames the other for the necessity. They despise the product and the prices, the purchaser and the proprietor. Within their common hearing are statements on clothes and thick ankles, walrus moustaches, false jewellery; adam's apples like fists, noses like levelled shotguns, tweed bums that must sidle through the doors. Leached faces, eyes of universal reproach, replicas of smiles of good intent. Barrage balloons of hospitality, politics and the weather are put up to draw the fire. Disillusioned with life, fearful of death, all seek that comfort of gregarious creatures which is the mute realisation of shared inconsequence.
A painter's van with the side ladder slips its brakes, runs backwards just a few metres and shatters the windscreen of the car behind. The event is mundane, but the sound of the glass oddly musical: a chime which sounds throughout the street. It enters the dreams of Charlotte Ecclestone in her flat above the shop. It is con-verted into the sound of the hunting horn which gathers shoughs and water-rugs through the heather. Nine people stop to watch, their backs to the drift of misty rain. They are made aware by the painter's van that providence is still at work in the world. They may win their Golden Kiwi yet. They pause to see if there is to be any further spectacle, but only the painter appears. 'Ah, no, Jesus,' he says. The nine people ghost away lest they be approached for help. 'Jesus, though. Wouldn't you know it.'
Charlotte expands beneath the purple quilt. As she stretches she draws a vast, prolonged breath as if she has been dead all night, and is come alive again. She lifts her large arms, smooth, and small hands, replaces them beneath the covers for warmth. Noddy's head marks the ticks, and Big Ears is his companion on the face. Half past twelve and the mist is kissing at the window 'Why me,' says painter Condell. Charlotte dresses before the heater. Her thighs shimmer as she draws on rugby socks of green and gold, mohair jersey, a skirt of French velvet with a burn covered by a butterfly She eats the one cold sausage in the fridge, and searches for other items. Dried apricots littered in the cupboard, cracked cheese from which she gnaws out the heart. Her coffee is very hot, and very black. She has a tam-o'-shanter for her head, winds a varsity scarf around her neck. The ends curl like banded snakes across her bosom. A satchel; a handbag of real and crinkled leather. From the high womb of her coloured flat she descends the dark stairway feet first and, despite the danger, is born successfully into a grey and milky world in polished brown boots, red velvet with burn and butterfly, and tam-o'-shanter.
Insubstantial people eddy as froth, indecisive before the crossings, while Charlotte ignores the lights and strides on from block to block. The leather bag and satchel swing, and diamonds settle on her high cheeks. She stops at Hemmings' delicatessen. Stuffed shoulder and Cornish pasties, apple strudel and pin-wheel buns with lemon icing. 'Let the mind feed the mind, and the body feed the body,' she says. The chiropodist beside her nods, and moves aside. Charlotte goes in and waits till Bernie Hemmings can come to serve her. She calculates the distance between the pasties and herself. She positions herself.
'I'm sick of being conned by you, Lottie,' says Bernie Hemmings, but he looks to see that his father is not at the back of the shop, and puts his own back to it. Charlotte takes his hand with icing sugar on the knuckles and places it just under her blouse.
'Go,' she says. It takes Charlotte only a few seconds to put two Cornish pasties in a bag; it takes Bernie, dizzy from desire, the same to briefly range one epic breast. Does she ever wear a bra?
'You move fast for a big woman, Lottie,' he says in despair. 'Damn you.' The icing sugar is brushed from his fingers, and he imagines it dusted on her curving skin. 'Can I come round tonight?'
'Not tonight.' Bernie watches her leave: red skirt sways from her hips and laps the tops of her polished boots.
'Jesus, Lottie,' says Bernie. His hand is still shaking, and he rests it upon the till to quieten it.
Charlotte sits in 327B and eats her Cornish trove. She is early. It is the warmth of the room rather than intellectual impatience which draws her. She finishes her meal, blows up and bursts the bag to startle the three drab and calculating scholars who are in the rows closer to the front. 'Wordsworth was a simplistic old goat,' she says when the lecturer arrives. 'Wordsworth knew nothing of the life of the people. He wouldn't involve himself in life. Wordsworth has no relevance for modern women.
Ah Miss Ecclestone,' says Dr Taylor wryly, 'last week you rebuked me for Southey now Wordsworth won't do.'
'Let's have Laurie Lee or Marvell again,' says Charlotte. "'He hangs in shades the orange bright, like golden lamps in a green night."'
'We are hag-ridden by our prescription.' He admires the presence of Charlotte Ecclestone: the focus of warmth and colour, the generosity of good-natured excess, the challenge to each conventional day Her shoulders are broad, her hands small, her double chin seductive, one firm crease and smooth. Wordsworth is both spoken of and heard with reluctance: thoughts of other things drift like a vapour. Bursaries and team selections, macaroni cheese and white upper arms, dying aunts, lost assignments, collapsed pistons, scrutiny of dreams, chapped lips and visions of apocalypse. Charlotte draws a picture of Valhalla, and imagines a banquet for all her favourite poets. She occupies herself with sorting the precedence of seating in her mind.
'Miss Ecclestone,' says Dr Taylor when people are leaving. 'Miss Ecclestone.' He holds a finger up in a gesture to delay her. The drab and calculating scholars of the front rows leave them reluctantly wishing the finger was raised for them. Dr Taylor looks at the bright butterfly on Lottie's red skirt, and her magnificent chest. 'I was disappointed to find that as yet you have made no entry for the Slye Poetry Award. It closes on the seventeenth, you see.'
'I've been so busy The hurly-burly'
'As long as you're aware of it. So few have bothered for the right reasons.'
'I might start something tonight. There's been the play and everything.'
'There's still time,' the lecturer says. He watches her go, and decides uncritically that Wordsworth should be deleted from the prescription. 'There's still time,' he says.
Charlotte leaves the campus. A foggy cloud hangs on the buildings, and a fug within the library She boards a bus in Crosse Street, and finds she knows the driver by sight. They smile at each other in defiance of the weather and all probabilities. Each time the bus stops and starts, he smiles at her. Charlotte likes the agile, decisive way he moves: she likes the strong tendons in the back of his hand: she likes the con-trast of his watch strap on the brown skin and hair of his wrist. She likes his square, neat sideburns. 'Have you ever thought of varying your route?' she says.
'People depend on a set timetable, you see. It's laid down.'
'Too much,' says Charlotte. 'But towards the end of a run most people are getting off, aren't they?'
'At the end of a run you could go on a few blocks. I mean you are the captain of the ship.'
'Sometimes if the roads are dangerous or that, I'll make a detour, make changes.'
'I'm only a few blocks further on. I thought you might like to come on up.'
'I've got other runs,' he says. 'I could ring in sick, I suppose.' His eyes start to jiggle. Charlotte breathes in deeply, and her breast rises like a spinnaker.
'No time or thought for all that,' she says. 'Come now; or not at all. Act on impulse, or not at all. To commit yourself to a moment is a pledge of its value.' Murray sees the small knuckles of her hand, the mist which glints on her dark hair, her cheeks, her tam-o' shanter. 'Ostler Street,' she says.
Murray swings the bus to a halt, and vaults out of his seat. He hurries down the bus to the last two old ladies, one green, one blue. 'You'll have to get out here,' he says. 'The brakes have gone. We could start rolling back any minute. I can't take the risk of going on.' He gallantly carries their baskets down the steps, and urges them into the drizzle. The green lady is the smaller. She has a bad leg. Murray takes her arm for a few metres till she settles into a rhythm. 'There you are,' he says. 'On your way.' The bus begins again, swiftly hissing along the wet streets.
'I am the captain of my ship,' says Murray with the conviction of sudden decision. 'We won't leave it by the shops, but there's that little dead-end street by the lodge. Rice Street. We'll whip it in there and no one will be any the wiser.' Murray drives the bus into Rice Street, to the very end, and leaves the blunt nose of the bus jutting over the steps of the lodge.
'Bring plenty of money' says Charlotte. 'You don't want to have to come back for it.' Murray takes a fist of notes, and a palm of silver as though it were only gravel.
Jesus,' he says. 'Hardly anyone needs a bus at this time of day anyway In this weather they're better off inside. They're nearly all old people wanting library books and sheepskins for their beds.' He comes and stands beside Charlotte. As a test of her sincerity he intends to give a horse-bite above the left knee, but the circumference of flesh is such that it becomes merely a pinch. Charlotte smiles at him. She closes her eyes for a moment as she smiles, and her long lashes lie down upon her cheeks.
'Let the mind feed the mind, and the body feed the body' she says.
That's right,' says Murray
He doesn't look back at the bus as they leave it. He turns up the collar of his jacket, the way he has seen hard cases do in the films, and he blesses what he regards as providence. 'This was such a foul day too,' he says.
'Do you like camembert cheese?' Charlotte says.
'Do I.' He is captive to the contrast of black curls on her ears.
'Buy three tins,' she says. 'And oysters. You like fried oysters?'
'A-ah.' The tasselled ends of her scarf flutter. Murray straightens his back to ensure that, in her boots, she is no taller than he as they walk.
'And a bottle of Barsac,' says Charlotte. 'You've got enough money for Barsac?' Murray has no idea, but he can see the red velvet skirt swirling from her hips like a flame amidst the mist. He holds up the bunched notes from his pocket. 'Two bottles of Barsac would be better,' she says. 'And hot bread perhaps.' Murray sees her small hands; the nails delicate. There is nothing gross in Charlotte. Physical size and power are more than balanced by dimension of the spirit.
Murray allows her to choose the shops and purchases. In her aura the corruption d the grey day is powerless. The world in watercolour wash is just a backdrop and the canvas trembles. 'Did you see me in Macbeth?' says Charlotte. 'I was Lady Macduff but l wanted to be Lady Macbeth. Come to that, I wanted to be Macbeth.' They rise up the stairs to her rooms, carrying the things that they will all share.
Charlotte lights the open fire. Dry, flared pine cones serve for kindling. 'I love fires,' she says. 'I'd like to be an arsonist, set things ablaze. Huge things, irreplaceable things, precious things, all going up with a roar. Such a moment must give a sense of grandeur and fearsomeness to life. To stand transfixed and see a parable of flames.' Murray watches the writhing of the pine cones, the petals incandescent.
'Children understand fire,' he says.
'Fire is eternal catharsis. Fire is the act of substance giving up its essence. Charlotte pushes the table closer to the heat, and sets out the oysters, bread, wine and the round cheeses. Her light shade is of hand-crafted coloured glass that casts additional colours to those of the fire. Murray is pale blue, and Charlotte oriental. The oysters in their batter are chameleon to no avail between the plate and mouth.
'This is the life,' says Murray He takes a swallow of Barsac, cautiously then another with wondering contentment.
'It's not much of a day for driving.'
'It could be worse. It could be ice, you see. That's when it's tricky for a bus in this city But there's satisfaction. The bus can be a world too, distinct from everything outside.'
'A technological denial of what is imposed. There are many ways to defeat the appearance of things. But driving buses on a set route: it must be the miniature golf of transport.
It is not often that anyone bothers to talk to Murray about his job. He eats the last oyster, and drinks more Barsac to provide its habitat. 'It's other people though, isn't it,' he says. 'And they don't think of the driver after a time, you know. You are just part of the bus and disregarded. I like to watch their faces as they look down through the win-dows at other people. All their life is in their faces. They can't help it. They lose their own masks as they watch people who are unaware they're being watched.'
'A series of emotional reflections.'
'A waitress or a lift operator must have a wonderful sense of species,' Charlotte says. She puts three more cones on the fire and balances a chunk of bright coal with absorbed deliberation. 'I only burn anthracite if I can, because of the appearance, the gleam of it, you see.' The gem coal leaves barely a smudge on her fingers. 'Have you any pain?' she says.
'Neither have I. Have you any serious regrets, any grand hopes and promises, anything of awesome threat or significant demarcation?' Murray smiles: such con-versation must represent humour. Antipodean reticence should be discarded for no other reason.
'I feel great,' he says.
'It's just that I take stock occasionally: snap the shutter sometimes on my life to frame assessments. The world is spinning fiercely while we are here. Here not there, this time not another. Immense concentration is needed to maintain actuality' The anthracite falls silently in two, and new flames appear. 'And we have no pain. You said you feel great.'
Murray draws his hand across the bright velvet of her skirt. 'All the colours of this room,' he says. 'I don't know how you do it. That glass lamp is something.' Charlotte lifts her hand before the facets of the table lamp. Her skin changes colour.
'It is my castle of conceits.' She undulates her arms to catch the light. Murray pushes her skirt up and lets his hand trace her nearer thigh. The circumference, the passage of his hand, seem to go on for ever. 'e. e. cummings said break up the white light of objective realism into the secret glories which it contains.'
This is the place for that, all right,' says Murray. Charlotte looks at the remaining food.
'God, this stuff,' she says. 'I'll blow right up on this food. Fatter and fatter.' She takes off her skirt: one knee is caught in a faint lilac bruise from the lamp. She admires Murray's clean hair, and the straight hair of his chest narrowing to a dark line down his belly and his ribs showing like straps below the muscles of his side. 'I don't know how men keep the fat off,' she says.
'Metabolism,' says Murray vaguely and then more forcefully. 'It's the jogging. I run for thirty minutes most nights.'
'I tried it once,' she says. 'I tried it, but I couldn't think as I ran. The effort kept breaking in on my thoughts, so I gave it up.'
'Ah,' says Murray. His head has ended too close to the fire, and the thick hair is in danger of being set alight. All of him is being set alight. The anthracite coal gleams of itself black, and in the varied flames of its essence, and the crafted glass lamp gives changing colours to movement, kaleidoscope of sex, and the Barsac in the bottle as strong a colour as a ginger cat.
Murray's trousers have become rolled inside out, and one sock lost down a leg. Charlotte watches him sorting it out. He stops to say 'I've just thought about the bus still parked there in Rice Street. Parked there outside the lodge, hours ago, and no word to the depot when I didn't come back.'
'What will you say?' The manipulation of phenomena is always of interest to her.
'I'll think of something.'
'Of course you will.'
'It would have worried me to plan in advance, but I feel I'll have no trouble at all in thinking of something. A dozen things could have happened.'
'More,' says Charlotte. 'Each moment has infinite possibility of development.'
'Anyway, I've a good record there and there'll be no bother. Any story will be swal-lowed once.'
'Of course it will. One oddity will remind them of your reliability' Charlotte says, 'and let me know how it works out.'
'Oh I'll be back to tell you all about it.' He puts on his jacket, and kisses her.
'Saturday's a good day,' she says. 'I'd come down, but I can't be bothered getting dressed again.'
'Saturday,' says Murray. He grins and goes quickly down the stairs: he draws his chin into his jacket in expectation of experience beyond Charlotte's flat.
Rain has come with the night, and the mist which has reconnoitred all the city is reinforced by the main body. The southerly hurries the rain in, driving it around cor-ners, down alleys, into soft, rotten crevices and bubbling through cracks against grav-ity. The streets are cold and slick, milky and cold. Gutter water begins its proletarian song, and shadows like acrobats swing and twist independent from the wires and cars and neons that cause them. And the rain has shadows as Murray goes, dark fans behind the squalls like a howlet's wing.
Charlotte runs a bath and watches the steam billow out into the other rooms, and twist before her fire and table lamp. She will begin her poem for the Slye Award. All the world for her is shrunk to three rooms, and will expand again within her mind.
This story is printed here by kind permission of Owen Marshall and Vintage Publishing House. Reproduction of this material is forbidden.